I sat in the middle of the station, watching my new friend check in on all of the horses, including Jessie, ensuring they had enough water and feed. When she was finished, she came back over and helped me to my feet. We’d already spoken of the wolf and the moon, which was the resistance version of pleasantries.
“I have questions,” I started.
“Later. We goin’ back tuh mine firs’. Yuh look like yuh not eaten.”
“At least tell me your name,” I protested.
The woman helped me put on my rucksack. “Which one, nuh?” She gave me a big, toothy grin. “Yuh one of us, ent? Let’s go, we sort yuh out. Yuh can call me Enell fuh now.”
“Yuh don’ stop, do yuh?” She let out an exasperated sigh, then spat on the old railway tracks. “Nella Louise. But dere no one evuh callin’ me dat. So, yuh call me Enell. My initials. Anyway, it easiuh. Come now. Come.”
Enell jumped down onto the tracks, a metre away from where the wooden plank was starting to absorb whatever she spat earlier. She paused a moment without turning around, waiting to hear the sound of my slightly less elegant landing behind her before taking off down the tracks. She stopped just short of the far end of the platform, where the shelter of the station building ended to reveal the outside, where a light snow had begun to fall.
“Yuh any good at runnin’?”
I used to be, but I hadn’t run since the start of winter. “I’m okay,” I said.
“Okay,” Enell mimicked. “Yuh best be okay, in case we need tuh leg it.”
She stepped out into the snow and started down a metal staircase leading to the rest of the Outpost below.
As it turned out, we didn’t need to run. Enell froze a couple of times, motioning with her hand to indicate when I needed to press up against a building, or crouch down. After a few moments of what from my perspective seemed like nothing more than hunter’s paranoia, we made it to a tall grey building, maybe twenty storeys high. Each floor was no bigger than a mid-sized urban apartment, but at the height of the population explosion it was likely that each floor would have been split into two shoeboxes, not unlike the one I lived in for a few months while I was trying to make it as a photographer in the Capital.
A small touchpad was positioned next to a door in front of us. It had nine buttons displaying a sequence of random numbers. Enell pressed one and the screen blanked, displaying a different set of numbers. This happened twice more, before it beeped. The door didn’t open. Instead, a section of the wall drew inwards slightly and slid aside. Enell entered the building wordlessly, yanking me inside as the wall opening slid shut rapidly behind us with barely so much as a soft click.
The lift was out of service, which wasn’t surprising. Enell studied me briefly and made for the stairs. She moved quickly, and it wasn’t long before I lost sight of her. I quickly realised her study of me was an attempt to gauge my endurance. I could hear her footsteps moving ahead of me; one, then two full flights above me as I fell further behind.
“Dun’ stop nah, keep going,” she called when I took a few seconds’ rest against the wall.
I carried on for a few more flights. Eighth floor. Ninth. Tenth. Still she persisted on, and I had to stop again. I could feel the blood rushing away from my head as spots appeared in my vision.
“Come on,” she called. “Not far now.” She sounded like a personal trainer.
I steadied myself and took several deep breaths, tackling the next few flights more slowly. Finally, the sound of Enell’s footsteps stopped at the twelfth floor. She stood waiting for me by the door.
Enell passed her forearm implant in front of a scanner, which in turn passed a beam of light at her eye level. “Commander Enell. Welcome back,” called a voice from within as the door opened. “And you’ve brought a friend.” A young man – no, a boy – Japanese, standing just behind the door picked up a smaller, cylindrical version of the scanner that had identified Enell. It looked a bit like a modified laser pointer. “Katie,” he said.
“How did you…”
“This links with all branches of the resistance.” He turned it around in his hand and gave it to me. “Press here,” he said.
I aimed it in his general direction and pressed where he showed me.
“Specialist Ulysses. Sending file to screen.”
“Eugh,” he grunted. “I’ve tried to get it to call me Uly. That’s the problem with forms – if you don’t put a box for it, you can’t tell it what to do.” Ulysses went to sit on a desk and spun around a computer monitor. My first thought was how much fancier it was than the one in Stephen’s lair. A photo appeared of Ulysses, maybe a couple of years younger, with his tongue protruding slightly from the side of his mouth in a smirk, sporting a twisted knot of hair locked in a loose man bun – or should I say, boy bun – and holding up two fingers as a ‘peace’ sign with an extended arm.
“Like the pic? I think you should change yours, it’s far too boring. Watch this,” he said, holding his hand out for the little scanner. He made a kissing noise, and a slender, extraordinarily fluffy ginger cat appeared. He pointed the scanner at the cat.
“Lieutenant Mao. Sending file to screen.”
“The software doesn’t recognise the Mandarin tones, which I thought was strange, I mean think how much we speak it nowadays, so I thought this was funny.”
A picture of Enell holding Mao belly-up flicked onto the screen. Mao didn’t look best pleased about his predicament. His eyes were focused on something behind the camera and his body was twisted around in frozen struggle.
Enell tutted. “We can do this later, Uly,” she said. “Where de uddahs?”
“Proper introductions are important, Enell. I think it’s important not to rush them. The others are out making good the next phase. Oh, and don’t worry about our ranks, Katie. We just did them for fun, though we do have a bit of a structure here.”
“He’s de boss,” Enell said. “Though sometimes I don’ remember exactly why.”
“You are very young,” I added. “Sorry, I don’t mean… but you must be what, fifteen?”
“I think so, yes. Maybe sixteen. My parents had my implant wiped when I was about two, to hide me. So I don’t know when my birthday is exactly.”
“I tellin’ yuh, you a Virgo. Yuh sixteen now. Yuh got a birthday. I gave it yuh as a birthday present.”
“Your friend should try to invent carbon dating for people. You know, like they do with trees or fossils or something. Get it down to an exact science. But then that would probably be used against us all, too. All that centralised data.”
“Your new friend, Stephen. You know, the one who comes here every month on the horse you rode in on.”
We stared at each other for a moment as I decided whether to lie.
“How much do you know about him?”
“Enough to know that he’s not a threat, not physically, anyway. Except he is one, I think, in the way I just described. Things he makes seem to end up in the wrong hands, and sometimes he has more of a choice in that than he thinks. He’s got a past. Like we all do, Katie.”
“What’s yours?” I asked, hardening my gaze.
A clamour outside interrupted our introductions. Our heads all turned to the window that had been left just slightly open to allow cool air to circulate amongst all of the heat being generated by all this tech.
Uly and Enell moved quickly to the window, standing on either side of it and peering down, as if someone could get to us here on the twelfth floor. As if someone had before. This secure hideout of the resistance might not be so safe.
I approached the window slowly, but the two of them waved their hands in my direction to indicate that I stay back. Finally, they both decided it was safe and looked out of the window properly.
“Someone walkin’ a little too confidently down dere,” Enell sighed.
“Not so confident now.” Uly slid the window shut. “Anyway. On to a little business. We need to get you to the City. You need to meet your mark. We can help you get there. And we can help you get inside.”
“I don’t need that. Stephen’s getting me in.”
Enell and Ulysses looked at each other, then at me: it was time to tell me that the tooth fairy wasn’t real.
“You’re free to do that. Of course, I wouldn’t stand in your way,” Uly began.
“But you think I shouldn’t.”
“That’s not what I’m saying. But he is an unknown. Like I said. He has a past. He has a history of… making bad decisions.”
“He won’t do that with me.”
“You seem certain of that. So I won’t try to change your mind. You have a working brain and an excellent record. Perhaps what I’m looking for is reassurance from you that it won’t blow up in our faces. They’re going to launch soon.”
The launch. The day that will cement the barriers between our worlds forever. The day known internationally as ‘the point of no return’. The day when our species will be permanently divided in two, and humans will no longer exist.
“How soon?” I asked.
“Months. This year. Our team is out gathering the latest intelligence from an old friend. They should be back soon… should be another week. But I don’t want to wait for them to send you out. Every day we gather evidence is another day closer to failure.”
“She needs tuh eat firs’,” Enell interjected. “Something uddah den whatever she been eatin’ in dat boy’ cave.”
“Fine. We’ll get the transport ready. I’m glad you stopped in, Katie. It’s a genuine pleasure.”
Ulysses extended his hand, and I shook it. “We’ll try to get you away in a couple of days.”
Another loud bang sounded from the window, louder than the first despite it now being closed. Ulysses and Enell both took up their positions either side of it, Mao darted under the table.
Enell slowly craned her head around to see what was below, and snapped it back instantly. She had seen something she didn’t like.
“Might have to be sooner dan dat,” she breathed.